A love letter to the Divine One.
In the late 1960s, Steve Ostrow opened The Continental Baths in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side in New York City. The Continental Baths was advertised as reminiscent of “the glory of ancient Rome.”
A gay man with $15 can get both sex and entertainment at the Continental and know he was mixing with the beautiful people. He might still turn up to work on Monday and be fired for being a fag. – Dennis Altman, 1971
Out of the steam and up to the mike emerged young Bette Midler fresh from a run in Fiddler On The Roof. She was brash, kinetic and talented. She loved the queens and the queens loved her. And she was accompanied by a talented young pianist named Barry Manilow.
The success of her show there was fast and furious. Suddenly, The Glitterati began to converge on the cabaret room at the Continental. The gowned and tuxedo-ed next to the toweled and the naked. Only in New York, only in the 70's! This led to an appearance on The Tonight Show, where she performed her maniacally perfect Chattanooga Choo Choo. Johnny's expression is priceless. He's blown away, and predicts great things to come for this girl.
Meanwhile, in Duluth (for pity's sake!) a ten year old boy, able to stay up late because of summer vacation is watching and, without reservation, agrees with Carson.
Soon she is signed to Atlantic Records and under the guidance, mentor-ship and lover-ship of genius Ahmet Ertegun, she produces three, simply perfect, albums in a row. Spanning these three records, you find pop, jazz, saloon songs, latin rhythms, disco, swing, boogie woogie, and even a duet with Bob Dylan for Chrissake!
She hit the road in '75 with a monstrously huge show for the "Live At Last" tour. I could be wrong, but I believe it was the first pop concert tour this massive kind of staging, sets and props.
Thankfully, long gone from Duluth, I was now 16 and living in the Washington DC suburbs. And with a thermos full of vodka and orange juice in hand, I hopped into my best friend Cathy Kite's car and off we headed to Shady Grove Music Fair to see Bette live, at last.
Now here's the kicker: the moron from tour management didn't do proper advance work when he booked this date. Shady Grove is theater in the round! So none of the remarkable sets could be used and the whole show had to be re-staged in something like a day. Ya think Bette was gonna let this go? Hah!! All night she kept referring to the venue as 'Shitty Grove Music Fair'. "Welcome to Shitty Grove Music Fair. This place has all the fucking charm and finesse of a Ramada Inn!"
Cathy's big memory is of Bette taking a photograph of Barry Manilow and sitting on it. Needless to say, it was remarkable. The configuration of the stage didn't limit Bette, The Harlettes, or the show. Not. One. Bit.
I almost don't need to mention her revelatory, Oscar nominated film debut; The Rose.
And a good thing it is that it needs so little mention as there is precious little media available for a show and tell on the matter. But in just these 3 photos look at everything that's going on in her face.
I was now 20, working for the federal government (as one does in dc)and a raging, out of the closet drunken party boy. And when I heard that one of my favorite entertainers was staring in a movie based on the life of one of my other favorite entertainers, I was over the moon! Every day for a week, I ran from my office to the liquor store in L'Enfant Plaza, bought a six pack and jumped in my maroon Pinto to drive over the bridge to the theater in Crystal City, Va. that was showing the movie. I'd have 5 of the beers in me for a nice buzz by the time I parked the car and for 5 consecutive days, I guzzled that movie like it was the 6th beer. Learning every song, every line of dialogue, every nuance of her performance.
A couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a 30th (!) anniversary screening of the film at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences theater and in the post screening Q&A the films' director, Mark Rydell summed up things beautifully by saying that Midler's biggest problem in the wake of the film is that she was so extraordinary that Hollywood just didn't know what to do with her. He contends that an opportunity was missed to exploit a brilliant dramatic actress. I agree.
One of the loveliest things I've ever seen was her tribute to Mr. Carson when he was leaving The Tonight Show. Go ahead and watch it without choking up. I dare you.
Next month, our girl will conclude her 2 year commitment at Caesars Palace in Vegas. I've not been fortunate enough to make that show #4 in the live appearances I've seen but friends tell me it is completely mind blowing. And I just think to myself, 'well, of course, it's Bette.'
My favorite Bette Midler song? Oh that's easy: 1973, Second Album, the wonderful Johnny Mercer song, Skylark. It's spare, just her vocal and Barry on piano, and it's just perfect.